Binary thinking -further reflections

or-thinking The discussion about binary thinking, right-wrong, black-white, clean-unclean, has led me to thinking about the prejudices that infect our society. The oldest prejudice was to hate the person not in your tribe, as alien and a presumed enemy. Over the years, as people learnt to live in social groups larger than one’s blood relatives, so the objects of emnity shifted. Enmity was felt towards anyone who was ‘different’, whether because of language, colour or simply being a stranger. It is possible to trace this instinctive hostility to the stranger to a need for self-preservation, a protection from the unknown and potentially dangerous. But over the centuries we have begun to learn to see the one who is different from us as offering us the possibility of learning something new. In short, most of us most of the time have grown up away from the kind of response that makes everyone either a friend or an enemy.

In the past few days in the UK, politicians of different parties have been caught in unguarded moments of expressing comments which reveal a deep homophobic or racial bias. In short they have been shown to be still mired in the old thought patterns which have become, not only politically incorrect, but also, in some cases, against the law. One suspects that many other people, apart from politicians, are still trapped in a world-view that can only distinguish between an us and them, friend or enemy. Social expedience and tact may reduce the times when this kind of prejudice is in fact uttered, but it still seems to exist just below the surface.

Let us think about what are the reasons why many people sometimes regress into what might be described as a primitive tribal way of thinking. The first reason is one we have already discussed – the capacity of the stranger to make us feel threatened and unsafe. That feeling may be traceable to experiences in childhood or to some deeper unconscious process. This desire for safety, as we all know, is not just a concern for our physical well-being; it also extends to feeling safe in our social environment. I am here referring to the unique ways in which each of us navigate through life, learning what has to be done to enable us to feel we belong and avoid those actions which can cause us to experience ‘social death’. This power to keep us conforming strongly in the social areas of life is often rooted in a real fear of being ‘left out’. It is likely to act more strongly on the young than the older population, the former feeling more acutely their social vulnerability. How do I keep my head above water, my acceptability intact and avoid all the social slip-ups that I am in danger of committing? The easiest answer to this dilemma is to ‘follow the crowd’. It may involve following an individual, whether a fashion guru or charismatic leader; it may involve joining a particular church. Each one of these can offer a haven to keep us ‘safe’, free to exist without falling in one of the many traps that spell, at best, ridicule and at worst, ostracism from the tribe that we want to be identified with, our gang or favoured group. The problem is that once we start to belong, we find that we take on the pattern of thinking that belongs to the particular group. That, after all, is part of the conditions of membership.

I have said in previous posts that many people live with a measure of unacknowledged fear in their lives. In this post we have been touching on the fear of a social gaffe that may put a person outside their favoured ‘gang’ and this is not a trivial emotion. Older people, who have a life-time of experience in creating an identity, can forget how fragile identity is to a younger person. The places that offer a packaged form of identity to these young people, are going to be places that often deal in simplicities and clear rules. Keep these clear rules and follow the leader and you will be safe, safe from the fear of being outside and safe from not knowing who you really are. This identity and this belonging however come at a definite price. The ‘gang’ that offers membership has, of necessity, to deal in generalities. If you join us, you will take on the persona of the gang, whatever it is. It may be one who hates Communists, gay marriage and ascribes many actions that we disapprove of as coming from the devil or Satan. These are the sort of generalities that are sometimes thrust on new aspiring members of a church. Equivalent demands are made on those who join political parties. The objects of generalised hate are here members of other parties or particular groups in society, whether they be bankers or Trade Unionists.

This blog post is perhaps claiming that black-white thinking may be one of the prices we pay to belong to any group that appeals to us. The church, in this respect, is no different from any other group, in that it often demands that we adjust our thinking to run along certain particular tramlines. In making this statement, I am perhaps simultaneously accepting and criticising a way of thinking that exists widely across society. It is wrong to think ill of groups of people who do not deserve such prejudice. At the same time, would we wish everyone to abandon the groups and parties who provide belonging and safety to so many? Prejudice may in the final resort be part of the price we have to pay for people to feel connected. I do not know the answer to this paradox. Perhaps we need to imagine a better way for people to bond together, other than in sharing the same ‘tribal’ assumptions which, according to this blog, are harmful to those whom they touch.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “Binary thinking -further reflections

  1. On a slight tangent as usual – 🙂 – getting older can indeed mean having more experience in forming and holding an identity, being less easily embarrassed and so on… it can also lead to the social death of being perceived as “past it”, having nothing to contribute, being irrelevant, ignored, burdensome, even invisible. So, aging has its social vulnerability too, which young people can be sublimely unaware of contributing to.

    On your main question, there is no possibility that people will stop having commitments to groups and parties, which have many various functions over and above providing belonging and safety. We are social animals and built to do that. We can try to form groups that have broad horizons and openness to difference. Jesus seems very much to have encouraged that. The command to love your enemy is the most radical possible challenge to tribal thinking.

    1. Agreed. We hang out with those with whom we have things in common. If we have no common ground, it can be very difficult to communicate at all. And then we start to hate the people who support Liverpool instead of Man U. And Happy Christmas, Haiku!

      1. cheers, and to you, EA!

        C of E’s first woman bishop announced this morning! And not one of the media’s usual suspects…

        1. Yeah. It’s good, but she’d better be the right person. The sharks are circling. If she turns out to be no good, the world will know!

  2. I agree. We will always have groups, and that is not a bad thing in itself. We are social creatures. It is the prejudice that is bad. We/they thinking is the stuff of cults and trauma. The cult I lived in was heavy on the we/they mentality. Every Christian outside of the cult was living a compromised, watered-down life. Only we had the real way of being a Christian. And if anyone left, they were considered to have joined the “dark side” and were anathema. Love and empathy demands that we think before we decide. We cannot judge anyone without knowing them. Hmmm. Sounds Biblical, doesn’t it?

  3. The expression ‘we/they’ makes a good summary of what the binary thing is all about. The point I really wanted to get across is that this phenomenon is as much about psychology as it is about theology. As I say in my Christmas reflection (to appear in a day or two), the Incarnation is about the overwhelming of boundaries. You cannot claim that God is on the side of those who create the ‘we/they’ attitude.

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